THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A
CIRCUS SHOWMAN, STAGE
& EXHIBITION MAN
BY J H McKENZIE
A LIFE OF TRAVEL IN THE
ABOVE VOCATIONS, BUILDER
ARTIST, MODELLER, CLOWN
THEATRICAL & SHOWMAN
FOR 10 YEARS
James H. McKenzie is a fascinating character for many reasons. His autobiography is a huge hand-written book, spanning around 55,000 words and it is a very interesting read. He seems consumed by his work as a circus showman, and he seems to be proud of his character-defining career. This autobiography is written when McKenzie is an older man, as he uses phrases such as ‘They don’t have those nowadays’, and ‘Nowadays there are gambling machines everywhere, but back then there were very few’ etc. This clearly indicates to the reader that he was writing his memoirs later on in life. It is unclear as to how much he left out of his autobiography, because judging from the size of the version we have read he seems to have had plenty to say. There are of course very few mentions of his family life back home, but this would not have been unusual for the period. After all, the very title of the autobiography indicates that his career will be the main focus of his text, so it cannot come as huge surprise that his showmanship takes up the majority of the words.
An interesting place to start our analysis is with the title of James McKenzie’s memoir: ‘Strange Truth’. When analysing the purpose of his writing, it can give us insight into the rest of the text. So firstly, why a ‘strange truth’? As McKenzie was an exhibitionist and showman, the title of his autobiography could represent his works and experiences throughout his life, mirroring all the shows he was part of. He created and performed in a great number of shows, and so the strange truth of the title could simply be referring to the many unusual ‘incidents’, as he likes to call them, that he experienced. It could also be in reference to the poetry he wrote later on in his text, as he could have seen this literature as a strange truth of sorts. He seems to be a caring man in many respects, as he truly loved the ‘curly haired horse’ from the opening sections of Part 2. It was a shock to read of the horse’s death a few pages later, especially after McKenzie describing how he saw the ‘other horses, looking on as mourners’. It is certain phrases like these that lead one to think he was an intelligent and emotionally expansive man, with a poetic ear.
Despite his extremely poor, working class background, McKenzie’s self-penned foreword mentions only his later life and again his career in show business. He feels proud when describing not only what he has accomplished, but also the obstacles he faced and how his life ended up. Moreover, the pages of contents mirror his life during that time. He explains how his life as a circus showman was almost inevitable, as travelling was something he was destined to do. On Page 40 of his text, he writes ‘I would like to be miles away’ and later on, on Page 49 writes ‘That shifting to one relative to another created a feeling I would like to leave all relations.’ Both of these quotations show how McKenzie is almost predisposed to his traveller ways; he has a series of unhappy childhood experiences concerning relatives that drive him on the road to Portsmouth.
The reason why he produced a list of contents could suggest that he wanted his memoir eventually published, as it is clear that he wanted his memoir to be read in a linear fashion, with the different sections being accessible.
“I got on the stage through the circus
with my craftsmanship, and
Forty years in stage life [over?], thirty
in circus & showlife, some experience.
I had a long experience with
the Old Dramatic Shows
Building, Painting & Acting.
Even took on Old Theatre
Built Shows from a Snake Show
to a Dickens Gallery [Peggatty Hut?]
Modelling for the stage of any-
I met many notable actors
and people in my world, by no
means great, but handy in all
artistic wants but even enough
for the London Opera House and
John [Filler/Fuller?] Etc Etc”
During his autobiography there is no mention of who he is writing for, and he does not seem to address the reader personally. He writes as if he is speaking to an audience from a stage, and is presenting his life as a stage show. We, as readers, are taking a back seat. However, his style of writing changes as his memoir progresses, suggesting that he wrote it over a period of time, although we can’t say how expansive this period was. It is not just his style of writing that changed but also his style of handwriting. He briefly mentions how a friend died in the ‘Great War’, which suggests a part of his memoir would have been written after World War I, even though there is no indication of where or when he wrote it. As a result of the war, many people started to reflect over their lives and his memoir could this be his own exercise in self-reflection. His earliest memories are written solely as memories; he describes places and people in great detail, rather than his feelings. He died at the advanced age of 90, which could explain the changes in handwriting and reflection, as it is possible that he kept on writing well into his old age.
At the end of his memoir, there is an intriguing section where McKenzie goes back to his childhood and describes his grandparents in a chapter of their own. Even though he has previously described his life with them at the beginning of his autobiography, he felt the need to re-draft this. Clearly, his life with his grandmother was a vivid memory that never left him. This whole memoir could potentially be a final farewell in honour of his grandparents. His life with his grandmother, living in a character-filled yet poverty stricken slum could also be McKenzie’s way of telling the reader the reasons why he became who he became: a late 19th century, extroverted version of Pip from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The character of Pip is continuously striving for a better life against the odds, which is something that McKenzie could identify strongly with, as they both want to achieve something more out of life. With this in mind, it is interesting to analyse as to why Charles Dickens is someone who McKenzie references at the beginning of his memoir:
Charles Dickens: draft, with corrections, from chapter 15 of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’
British Library Add. MS 57493, f.10
Copyright © The British Library Board
“MY FRIENDLY SHOWMAN”
Dickens himself was a man in show business, who had a profound interest in the arts such as theatre, magic etc. Dickens died when McKenzie was 8 years old, and could well have been a major influence in our writer’s life. McKenzie maybe even felt he could relate to him in some way, as Dickens came from a working class childhood. With Dickens’ own father being sent to a debtor’s prison and then having to live in a workhouse, it is fully possible that McKenzie saw something of Dickens in himself. McKenzie could have written his memoir as a picaresque, rags to riches tale, not unlike the experiences of many of Dickens’ characters. The most similar character to McKenzie is Nicholas Nickleby, and this story centres around a man who befriends a young boy named Smike. He resides in a ‘tough boy’s’ boarding school, and they eventually run away with a group of travelling actors. With these similarities brought to attention, it is clear that the life and works of Charles Dickens made enough of an impact on McKenzie for him to include the renowned author in his foreword.
There is a curious moment in Part 2 that could, to a more observant reader, suggest McKenzie is homosexual. He seems very much taken with the ‘young gentleman’ he bumps into when he taking a relaxing break in Somerset. He describes at great lengths the young man’s yacht and adventures, and that they regularly breakfasted together after the fellow knocked at McKenzie’s caravan. The young man even goes so far as to generously invite McKenzie on a longer adventure, but he feels the need to decline and ‘make many excuses’. This would be an innocuous passage if it wasn’t for the fact that it is one of a very small number of moments where McKenzie describes another person in terms of their hobbies and leisure activities, as opposed to solely describing their working lives. McKenzie could have written his autobiography as a way of documenting his memories, and if he was homosexual, then veiling his love interests as merely ‘friends’ would allow him to relive and relish the memories, but simultaneously keep them coded and private. The descriptions of his yachting friend are all the more loaded when we understand that personal anecdotes are few and far between for McKenzie, and that he sticks to stories concerning his working life only.
McKenzie seems like a man with few regrets- he describes his old fellow showmen who have sailed off to America to find their fortune, and how they did exactly that. He doesn’t seem to be envious of their success across the pond, he just reels off a number of names of people who opened side shows and attractions there and made their millions. One of these people went on to found the Dreamland Park in America. One of the attractions here was a village of midgets, shown here in a 1906 image.
Liliputa, built to look like a half scale Nurmeburg, Germany, was home to 300 midgets.
Copyright © Jeffrey Stanton 1997
All Rights Reserved. Found on www.westland.net/coneyisland/mapsdocs/dr06-map6.htm